Dr. Donna Wagner

Researcher studies state of eldercare in the U.S.

Dr. Donna Wagner

Dr. Donna Wagner: Dean of CHSS

Story by Justin Bannister, NMSU Communications

About 15 percent of the U.S. workforce is involved in providing care and support to an older relative or friend, a percentage that is only expected to increase over the coming years. A researcher at New Mexico State University says not all employers provide support for these employees, even though it’s something that could save everyone money in the long run.

Donna Wagner, an associate dean at NMSU’s College of Health and Social Services, is one of the country’s leading experts in this field. She says fewer than 25 percent of companies with a large number of employees have a program in place at all.

“There is a good business case that could be made for providing eldercare to employees,” Wagner said. “Eighty percent of employed caregivers make some workplace accommodations as a result of their care responsibilities – coming in late to work, leaving early or taking time off. Ten percent of employees who are providing eldercare end up leaving the workplace, most of the time permanently.”

She said that in New Mexico, on any given day, there are 287,000 residents who are caregiving. During a 12-month period, there are 419,000 providing care. According to the AARP, the value of their “free” services to the long-term care system in New Mexico is $3.1 million.

Wagner led a research team that studied best practices in workplace eldercare. The research was conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving for ReACT, a group of corporations and organizations dedicated to addressing the challenges faced by employee caregivers and reducing the impact on the companies that employ them. The study looked at what companies are doing now in regard to eldercare and compare it to what companies had done in the past. Workplace eldercare programs have been around for more than 25 years in the US.

“We found that not much had changed since the 1990s,” Wagner said. “But there are a few new and interesting things that companies are doing, which can have a positive bottom-line benefit for employers as well as help the workers manage their caregiving and work.”

A few of the new benefits or policies Wagner found included employers providing discounted rates for emergency back-up home health care and providing access to health care coaches and mentors to help with medical paperwork. In addition, many employers are offering Internet-based information and training on topics such as caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease that an employee can take advantage of during the lunch hour or after work.

“The ‘average’ employee with eldercare responsibilities is a woman who is in her mid-50s,” Wagner said. “However, there are almost as many men in the workplace as women who are providing ongoing support to an elder. There are also a number of younger workers who are actively involved in care giving for an elder. Approximately 20 percent of the care giving employees nationwide are younger than 45.”

She said the situation will get more complicated in the future because baby boomers will have fewer informal family care resources than did their parents. She believes there will be an increase in younger workers with care responsibilities as a function of late childbirth trends.

Included in the recommendations of her report is advice for employers to make their money go further by not just implementing eldercare benefits for employees, but implementing the ones that make the most sense, and complement other, free services already available in their areas.

“I think this is exactly the right time for these kinds of benefits,” she said. “Employers can’t afford to lose and replace valuable workers. This is a time to hold on to good employees.”

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